Hermiston assistant coach Rick Wells posed for group photos with his offensive linemen on the field following Saturday night’s game, smiling and looking around at each kid like a proud father.
“They’re like my sons,” Wells said Saturday night, holding back emotions. “I’m blessed with three daughters and a bunch of sons, really.”
The bond between Wells and his players and amongst the players themselves played out to be a key factor for the Bulldogs this season, as a much-improved play from the linemen paved the way for an offensive barrage this season.
“I’m really, really hard on them, I absolutely demand their very, very best and they respond,” Wells said. “They don’t worry when something is wrong. They are so coachable and it’s just amazing and more than anything, we have five or six guys that just love each other to death and play so hard.”
Last season as Hermiston put together a middling 5-5 season, inconsistent play on the line led to an inconsistent season from the offense as a whole. The Bulldogs averaged 24 points and roughly 350 yards of offense per game in 2016, which ended with a loss in the first round of the playoffs. But with four starters returning in 2017, the group decided to step up their game in the offseason to help their team reach the ultimate goal.
“We wanted the state championship, there was no other goal than that,” senior guard Beau Blake said Saturday. “We wanted to go for the state championship above all and never quit. We wanted to keep going no matter what.”
And all that work paid off. Hermiston’s five starters of AJ Fernandez, Jacob Liebe, Jose Huato, Taylor Arnold and Blake helped the linemen come together to pave the way for Hermiston’s offense to reach new heights this season. Hermiston averaged 36 points per game and piled up more than 5,700 yards of total offense on its way to winning the championship.
“The four seniors we have, we’ve been playing since we were grade kids,” Blake said. “We are such good friends. We spend every Sunday (together), we’re eating biscuits and gravy together. We do everything together and we trust each other so much. We’re such good friends and that’s what helps us. We make sure we do the work on the field and in the weight room and that’s what transfers on to the field.”
The area where the line’s improvement was most notable was in the run game. The Bulldogs totaled 1,598 rush yards last season and topped the 200 yard mark in a game just three times as a team, with the highest being 257 yards. This season the Bulldogs tallied more than 3,300 rushing yards, including six games with at least 300 yards, thanks to the linemen sealing blocks to spring the likes of Jonathan Hinkle, Peter Earl and Andrew James free.
The line’s bond was tested in the 5A quarterfinal game against South Albany, when Huato, the starting right guard, suffered a right knee injury in the second quarter and causing him to watch the last two games hunched over his crutches on the sideline. Chase Bradshaw, a sophomore stepped in to the starting spot and the Bulldogs didn’t miss much of a beat, showing the confidence that the group has in themselves.
“It means that we have a great program right here,” Blake said. “No matter what, it’s always the next guy up. We have such good players, even in the second team. We don’t miss a beat because we work together and we don’t give up.”
And Huato’s injury also showed the selflessness that the unit has. As a senior and two-year starter Huato was disappointed he was not able to play, but he was thrilled to see Bradshaw fill in so well in his place and still be able to call himself a state champion.
“I’m in shock,” he said. “This is the best feeling I have ever had playing football.”
Churchill gave Hermiston’s line perhaps its biggest challenge yet. After a relatively easy first offensive drive, the Lancers dialed up pressure with blitzes and stunts on nearly every snap to try and slow down the Bulldogs’ red-hot offense.
“They’re a dang-good football team and there was a reason they were 12-0,” Wells said of the Lancers. “The biggest thing we had to do is keep ourselves calm and stick with it and be patient. There’s going to be times when we’ll get stuffed and bad things happen, but we continued our road forward and that’s what we do.”
Hermiston was held to just 181 rushing yards on 48 attempts against Churchill, its lowest output since a Week 3 loss to Mountain View, but it was more than enough for the Bulldogs to bring home the title.
“Big-time people make big-time plays in big-time games,” Wells said, “and our guys do that and that’s one of the reasons we’re going to get a ring soon, so it’s pretty special.”
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